This study investigates the factors that influence the design and implementation of a project-based learning (PBL) curriculum within an alternative education program in a suburban public school district. The study sought to tell the story of the implementation of PBL from the perspectives of staff and students at the school. A narrative inquiry methodology was selected. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with twelve staff members and eight students. Data also included field notes made at school events throughout the year and student artefacts of learning. The data were analyzed using open, axial, and selective coding processes. The data from staff participants revealed three thematic categories of factors that influenced the design and implementation of PBL: (1) foundational factors (positive relationships with students, a commitment to student-centered learning, flexible scheduling, staff collaboration, and administrative support); (2) challenges (students’ social emotional well being, students’ learning fears and learning disabilities, students’ levels of interest and motivation for learning, and teachers’ concerns regarding the academic rigour of the PBL model); and (3) professional development activities (shared vision for PBL, workshops and in-service sessions, online and off-site learning opportunities, teacher inquiry and experiential learning, and staff opportunities for collaboration and reflection). Factors that contributed to students’ engagement in the PBL model revealed both distancing and embracing narratives. Distancing narratives reflected the factors that had disengaged students from learning in their former school. These included barriers to learning, feelings of alienation, and school bureaucracies. Embracing narratives reflected the key factors that contributed to students’ engagement in the PBL model. These included a caring environment, flexible learning, a co-constructed curriculum, personal relevancy and authenticity, and empowerment. The findings of this research suggest that if positive inter-relational conditions are established in the learning environment among teachers and students (sense of belonging, trusting relationships, collaborative practices, ethic of care) project-based learning can be an effective curriculum model for re-engaging vulnerable youth in school. Furthermore, the study suggests that a PBL curriculum model grounded in students’ interests and passions can provide personally relevant, authentic learning opportunities that empower alternative education students and help them develop resiliency, self-efficacy, and more positive self-images.
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